Let’s Talk iPhone

Apple has, apparently, sent out invitations to an iPhone-related event on October 4. John Gruber says that someone has told him that there will only be one new phone (which is almost certainly accurate). Of course it’s entirely possible that the existing iPhone 4 will become the entry-level phone with 8GB of storage which would kind of qualify as a “new” phone.

The simplest option, which would be underwhelming but still very good, would simply be an A5-based iPhone 4, which could presumably be thinner and lighter (as the iPad2 relative to the iPad) or have even better battery life. If thinner and lighter then expect the camera to be inferior in at least some respect (e.g. sharpness or low light capability) owing to the lack of room. The general consensus seems to be that it will be thinner but have a slightly larger screen.

Apple doesn’t iterate its physical designs lightly. Samsung et al may be able to deliver a dizzying array of form factors on a monthly basis, but Apple takes care over its designs and only changes them rarely. I would not be at all surprised if the new iPhone is very close in appearance to the model it replaces — but “Antennagate” might argue for some more dramatic change. Also, a lot of us would like a less frictionless and easily broken device (mine is in near mint condition, but my wife’s is shattered on both sides).

Possibilities

iOS5. One thing that hasn’t been getting much attention is that while it’s obvious iOS5 will be released, there remain some credible rumors that it will feature as-yet-unrevealed features. Nuance voice recognition and speech synthesis is one possibility. Facebook integration (groan) is another.

A6. Perhaps the most likely surprise would be that the iPhone 5 skips the A5 (which is made by Samsung) in favor of a more advanced — or simply different — chip. This could be purely out of spite (although to ascribe a giant corporation’s behavior to an emotional root is generally naive), strategic based on Samsung’s clear intent to leverage the capabilities and scale it gets from supplying Apple to compete against Apple, or strategic based on Apple’s supply chain problems earlier this year with the iPad2 (was the A5 one of the bottlenecks?).

Free with plan. A “free with plan” iPhone wouldn’t have to be a new product to have a huge impact. Apple is pretty close now (I’ve seen the 3GS offered at under $40 with plan). The real problem here is that if we’re only getting one new phone then we’re almost certainly not getting a cheap model that can connect to networks other than AT&T, Verizon, and kind-of with T-Mobile.

iPod Touch replacement is the iPhone4. An iPhone 4 sold at a reasonable (sub $300) price without any plan requirement as an iPod Touch replacement would be truly awesome. (As a developer I’d actually love to see Android handsets along the same lines, but the only plan-free Android handsets I see are horribly expensive or rubbish, certainly nowhere near as nice as a two year old iPod Touch.)

Improbabilities

Thunderbolt Support would be damn cool but probably suicidal. Of course the cables are insanely expensive still, there’s no easy way to retrofit support into older computers (which most of us have), and it’s not Apple’s style to provide two connection options when one will almost do (we still have a bunch of useless FireWire-to-iPod accessories lying around, for example).

A serious camera option is my favorite crazy idea. Apple could license a sensor and lens mount such as Olympus’s M4/3 or Nikon’s CX system (the latter would be doable with little increase in thickness — and the Nikon J1 is smaller in other dimensions than an iPhone). It might not even be positioned as an iPhone (iTake? iMage?). Such a device would disrupt the camera industry (one of the few consumer electronics industries still actually shipping single-purpose devices and making some money), sucking the money out of its heart the way the iPhone did to smart phones and the iPod did to “Hi Fi”. (Remember when companies like Bose, B&O, and Pioneer were “cool” and sold more than high-end headphones and iPod docks?)

Supposedly the digital still market is projected to reach $43.5B per year by 2015, which presumably means it’s quite a bit smaller right now. Even so, that’s not chump change, and presumably there’s some profit in there somewhere. (Of course, annihilating the camera companies could be a bit self-defeating for computer hardware companies, since they also make tools necessary for chip fabrication.)

Inertial Locator. It seems as though, having embraced GPS, the world has forgotten about the inertial locater, a device (long since reduced to a tiny solid-state component) that determines your position relative to a last known place. Adding an inertial locator to the iPhone would allow it to have a good idea of where it was inside buildings and other places GPS is no good, and also reduce the need to use the GPS system to locate itself (thus allowing more precise tracking of one’s location with less battery power). And even nicer, it wouldn’t require new APIs — so existing location-aware software would simply work better immediately.

Standardized case-with-game-controller. Hey, I can dream can’t I?

A stupidly rugged iPhone for the ages. Textured steel and/or rubber exterior designed to age gracefully, with weather seals and recessed screen. Now that computers don’t become obsolete every 18 months how about we start design shit to last? How many folks with kids would jump all over this? (Literally!)

A farewell to HP

I first learned to program on an HP65 calculator. I loved HP and lusted for its products before Apple existed. When I read my Scientific Americans (yeah, I wad a precocious kid) I spent almost as much time lusting over ads for HP’s desktop workstations than reading articles. Heck I nearly bought one of their knockoff commemorative calculators.

When I was in College we all listed for the HP41c and HP15c calculators. Some friends figured out how to break out of the HP41c’s OS and hack its internals, and would compete to optimize its operations. (Unlike cheaper rivals, from Casios to TIs, HPs were actually computers; this meant that they wwr slower than Casios but much more flexible.)

Years later, when I was doing a lot of paper game design, which meant complex desktop publishing, and couldn’t afford $10,000 for a laser printer, it was HP who delivered an affordable ($2000) desktop inkjet printer with similar output quality. Unlike today’s flimsy devices, this one cranked out pages for the next ten years.

Some nave argued that HP had already lost its way in 1975 when they passed on Wozniak’s personal computer (seven years before the IBM PC) but HP’s printer innovations were not insignificant. You can’t pick every winner, right?

And we shouldn’t forget Compaq and DEC, both great companies in their time, absorbed and their legacies dissipated within the bowels of HP.

HP’s failure is not for lack of trying. Consider PA-RISC, HPUX, Alpha (from DEC), and … OK perhaps Compaq wad never such a great company. (Ever use an iPaq? They make the MessagePad 100 look like the iPhone 4.)

So, it’s pretty depressing to see this once great company, built on the bones of several other great companies, being run into the ground. The problem is, even if HP were capable of some incredible new success, I don’t think Meg Whitman is the person to help deliver it.

The Convergence Device

The cellphone and the personal computer are the two most formidable points of convergence in the digital world. The PC has devoured the typewriter, the TV, the telephone, musical instruments, darkrooms, video conferencing, and… Well the list just goes on.

But the cell phone has devoured the camera, the hi fi, the personal organizer, and, with the iPhone, it started devouring the PC in earnest. Right now, the only things an iPhone doesn’t replace a PC for are either because of obvious software limitations (e.g. no file system), intentional limitations (e.g. no dev tools allowed), physical IO limitations (small screen, crappy keyboard) or computing power (speed, capacity).

Given that any large screen can serve as the display of an iPhone, and any Bluetooth keyboard can serve as an input device, really the only thing preventing most of us from simply using our cell phones or cellular tablets as our only computers is a few years of Moore’s Law and better software, both of which are inevitable.

Apple is betting that iOS will be enough of an OS for the vast majority of users. Microsoft is betting that enough people will want a more “complete” PC OS to justify the baggage it’s including with Windows 8.

Yesterday, I visited an Apple Store (my reason is a pretty funny story in itself, but I won’t digress further) and saw about a dozen people, all with greying hair, being instructed on how to use their new iPads. The point here is that the iPad is still too much computer for many users.

I suspect that Google is on the right track with Chrome (the OS) and the wrong track with Android (Android is just too fiddly — which isn’t to say that it can’t be fixed or forked). Microsoft is on the wrong track with Windows 8, but if the Windows part is just a compatibility box that can be discarded later they can adapt as required.

Ultimately, the cellphone has all the advantages over the PC and will subsume it. It’s smaller, more portable, always connected, and everyone needs one anyway. The cellphone is the convergence device.

Typed on an iPad, by the way.

iOS5+Twitter

A number of sources (e.g. Robert Scoble) seem to think that iOS5 is going to feature deep Twitter integration, and that this will be some kind of killer feature.

If there’s one thing about the iPhone I really despise it’s Apple’s failure to offer a unified messaging interface. It seems obvious to me, and anyone I rant to on the subject, that the important thing about messages is who they’re from and their content, not the way they were  sent.

Out of the box, an iPhone has the following messaging interfaces:

  • Phone App — recent calls
  • Phone App — voicemail (that’s right two different UIs just to see who has called you)
  • SMS App
  • Email App — until iOS, you didn’t even have a unified inbox
  • Contacts (not a messaging app per se, but integral to messaging)
  • Calendar (again, not a messaging app but…)

While the iPhone made everything before it seem like a sad joke, this is still a long way shy of ideal. I might add that Mac OS X offers:

  • Mail
  • iChat
  • Facetime
  • Address Book
  • iCal

You might argue that Apple is taking a UNIXy “do one thing well” approach to messaging apps, but then I’d have to hit you with a plank. The fact is that the “one thing” these apps are doing is machine-centric, not user-centric. If I’m anxious to hear from my wife, I don’t want to have to check four different apps. I’m doing one thing, but I need to parse it out into four things for my stupid machine.

What does all this have to do with Twitter?

Well, Apple tends to fix problems like this — where there are lots of ways to do similar or overlapping things — differently from, say, Google or Microsoft. Google or Microsoft would produce something like Outlook or GoogleTV with the ability to pull data off tons of different kinds of servers, and then integrate support for everything else they could think of into the same UI. And it would all kind of work. And Logitech would create a remote control for it.

Apple instead looks around for a new thing that could do everything, or almost everything, that people want, if they’d simply have the common sense to give up on all the other crap and start using this new, obviously better thing. “You don’t need ADB, serial ports, parallel ports, audio connections. You need USB.” Sometimes this works very well — e.g. USB. Sometimes it works really badly — imagine I were to list all of Apple’s bizarro video connectors over the years at this point. Thunderbolt is a very good example of Apple’s approach.

I didn’t think much of Twitter when it first came out. Or for a few years after. I got a Twitter account early and then it languished for years. Even now, I use it pretty passively. But eventually it became indispensable. The interesting thing about Twitter is that it’s:

  • Simple
  • Versatile
  • Easy to push data to
  • Easy to grab data from

If we go back to my list of the most important things about messages, you might remember that who the message was from was listed before the message content. All you generally need from a message is to know who sent it and perhaps the first line of text.

Contrast this with SMS, email, voicemail, calendaring, and what have you. Vonage and Google Voice currently offers email integration — miss a call and you’ll get a garbled transcript of a voicemail and a link to the voicemail itself. (With Vonage you get the audio file in your inbox … grrr.) This is better than nothing, but email clients are pretty heavy, and if I don’t want to use email as my central point of contact it’s hard to then do something useful with it.

So, it looks like Apple is attempting to fix the problem of too many messaging UIs by adding another one. In the short term, this makes things worse (just as there’s nothing to plug in to your Thunderbolt port right now) but it has the potential to make things a lot better.

We’ll see.

Apple’s Broken Hub

WWDC is next week. iOS5, 10.7, and — most intriguingly — iCloud are going to be launched. I’ve been living with the AppleTV (v2, I never got the original) for several months now, and while I love this device, the ecosystem in which it operates remains deeply, and in some cases inexplicably, flawed.

I won’t go into the details of our home setup, but suffice it to say that every major category of Apple device is well-represented. (I won’t say how many iOS devices we have, it’s embarrassing.)

Now, there are plenty of major annoyances with the Apple media ecosystem that don’t have anything to do with technology, such as why won’t HBO let us buy their content (e.g. True Blood) in a timely manner? Ditto CBS. But let’s just look at the really obvious stuff that Apple could easily fix:

  • Why can’t we have an Apple remote that can power the TV set on/off, adjust volume, and select input source?
  • Why can’t I stream content from iTunes (on a Mac) to iOS devices over the LAN? Why can’t an iPad act as an AirPlay receiver?
  • Why can’t I buy something from my AppleTV and have it download to my Home Sharing server and then start streaming?
  • Why does Apple let me turn off Home Sharing on the AppleTV using the iOS Remote Control app without giving me a mechanism for turning it back on? (For that you need to use an IR remote, and if it’s lost and currently paired then you are in for a World of Hurt.)
  • Why can’t a Mac act as an AirPlay receiver?
  • Why does iTunes need to be running for everything to work? Or, why can’t it be launched automatically as needed? (Sure, I can launch it via a VNC client, but I shouldn’t have to.)
  • Why can’t a Mac act as a remote control? (E.g. via iTunes when you’re currently streaming video from that Mac to an AppleTV.)
  • Why doesn’t AppleTV respond instantly when powering on? Every other iOS device manages better response than the AppleTV. (And sometimes it’s crashed and you need to go cycle its power.)
  • Why can’t an iPhone or iPod touch act as a remote for an iPad? (Remember, Apple is selling HDMI outputs for iPads.)
  • For bonus points, why can’t airplay “hand over” sourcing of content to a server. E.g. if I have Cars half-way through on my iPad when I walk into the house, why can’t I “hand over” the playback to my AppleTV with my Mac server becoming the source?

Some of the things I thought would be issues have turned out to be non-issues:

E.g. the lack of DVR support is almost irrelevant (between Netflix and Hulu we hardly use our TiVos any more).

Similarly, ripping our existing DVDs to iTunes has been pretty effortless thanks to iRip and Handbrake (no more painful, say, than ripping MP3s from CDs back when), although as others have pointed out, ripped DVDs use more battery power to play back than iTunes purchases.

Prices in the iTunes store are pretty decent. E.g. we were unable to find better deals on Pixar movies on DVD from Costco or Amazon than iTunes, and the iTunes content is more convenient. (Bluray 1080p content is presumably somewhat better than iTunes 720P, but I’m simply not able to tell them apart with normal viewing.)

Aside: it turns out we can tuck a gen 1 iPad into our car DVD player’s mount and turn the iPad into an in-car entertainment system which doesn’t tie up the cigarette lighter slot (the DVD player could go for maybe one movie on a full charge when new, whereas the iPad can run continuously for a day of driving on a single charge, longer if it gets the charger when available). And, finally, we have a single charger that can charge our iPads (or in-car entertainment systems…) and iPhones and iPods.

Summing Up

The main problem with Apple’s digital ecosystem is that there’s content you simply can’t get without jumping backwards through hoops (and probably breaking the law). But there are plenty of technical shortcomings that Apple can and should address. Why can I stream content from this device to that device, but not this other device? Why can I control this gadget with that gadget, but not this other gadget? Right now, the best experience is streaming content from Apple or Netflix with streaming content from your Mac a fairly distant second, and dealing with content from outside Apple’s ecosystem (e.g. DVDs and rights holders that don’t want to play Apple’s game).

So what might we see on Monday?

  • iCloud digital locker for content purchased from iTunes moving forward
  • iCloud streams to all Macs and iOS devices
  • AppleTV allows purchases which become available immediately via iCloud
  • iCloud digital locker for content purchased from iTunes in the past (or with a small added fee)
  • iCloud digital locker that (say) identifies tracks you’ve ripped, or your CD or DVD, and offers to sell you a digital/streaming version at a discount
  • iCloud as an alternative to DropBox
  • iCloud to provide streaming backups for Time Machine
  • iCloud as a replacement for MobileMe
  • Gaming on TVs via AirPlay and AppleTV using iOS devices as controllers
  • Apps on AppleTV (or its successor) via iOS5
  • Gaming on AppleTV using iOS devices as controllers
  • From left field: iCloud acts as virtual DVR based on content Apple can establish you have access to — actually that sounds like a really great idea; e.g. if you can prove you have basic cable and thus receive CBS, Apple gives you access to a streamable version of the Mentalist the day after it airs. Even better, Apple simply negotiates TV rights as if it were a new cable provider and makes everything available on demand.

We’ll see.